by Len Lear
Ed. Note: The front page article in last week’s Local Life section was about Justin Hopkins, 31, a Mt. Airy resident who has become one of the nation’s highly acclaimed young opera stars. The bass-baritone attended Holy Cross School (K-8) in Mt. Airy, St. Joseph’s Prep High School, Loyola University in New Orleans (college) and Scuola Musicale di Milano (independent post-graduate study in Italy). Because of the interest in last week’s article, we decided to add the following interview we conducted with Justin:
How did you like going to school in New Orleans?
I loved my college years in New Orleans. Having traveled the world with the Philadelphia Boys Choir, I wanted to spend my time in the most unique American city possible. There is no other American city that has such a blend of African, French and Spanish history and culture. New Orleans lives and breathes music; not only jazz, but gospel, zydeco and classical. The Louisiana cuisine alone is enough reason to go to school there.
How would you characterize your experiences with the Philly Boys Choir?
My experiences with the Philly Boys Choir were the defining experiences of my life. I believe I am who I am today, not only as a musician, but who I am and will be as a person because of those experiences with the group. Singing under the choir’s founder Dr. Robert G. Hamilton instilled in me a sense of discipline, love of music, city and national pride as well as civic duty. We were the ‘Ambassadors of Song’, a title I believe Richard Nixon may have unofficially bestowed upon the choir in its early years. I took this role very seriously, especially when we travelled abroad. Our goal was to represent the very best that America had to offer on and off the stage. I still feel charged with that responsibility when I travel for my operatic career today.
What was it like to be a soloist for the Dalai Lama and to meet him?
Performing for His Holiness the Dalai Lama was one of the greatest honors I have ever had. I performed “Ol’ Man River” at the request of the event organizers. I introduced the song saying, “A man plagued by the racial and socio-economic issues of his time gazes upon the Mississippi River and meditates on the freedom it represents.” His presence added that much more significance to my performance and understanding of the song. I believe he was moved by the song and the presentation. I was told that he spoke of the performance for days after the event.
What was it like to sing with the Boston Pops?
If orchestras are like cars, the Boston Pops are the Cadillac of pops orchestras. I first saw Keith Lockhart and the Pops perform on the PBS broadcast of their concert with Seinfeld actor Jason Alexander in 1996. I was blown away by Keith’s conducting, and by the sound of the orchestra. I’ve worked with Keith in London with the BBC Concert Orchestra, as well as with the Pops. It is always an absolute thrill.
What was your favorite role? Your favorite composer?
My favorite sing has been the baritone solo in Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem.” I just performed it last month with Keith Lockhart and the Dayton Philharmonic. This was the first major work I performed as a member of the Philly Boys Choir with Wolfgang Sawallisch and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1993. It is my favorite work, and closest to my heart. It was also the most challenging song of my career. My favorite composer is Rachmaninoff.
How do you feel about all the travel and touring? The pluses and minuses?
I enjoy the travel and touring. I love having and making new friends in cities all around the world. It informs and broadens my perspective on not only the foreign countries to which I travel, but on my own. The downside is being away from friends and family. With social media, it is easier than ever to stay in contact. Still, I miss a lot of gatherings and events when I’m away.
What has been your most favorite city and least favorite city? Why?
I would have to say my favorite city has been London. To me, it is the most “alive.” There is so much music, so much art, so many orchestras and halls there that are thriving. I would love to perform there again. I honestly can’t think of a least favorite city. I’ve been welcomed every place I’ve been.
What was the greatest hall you have performed in, or is it too difficult to compare them?
The greatest hall I’ve performed in is Carnegie Hall. The acoustic of the hall is absolutely incredible. There is also the palpable feeling in the air of being in the midst of the countless luminaries who graced that stage.
Why has opera lasted so many centuries?
I believe opera has lasted in part because our fascination with the mysterious power of the human voice. In no other art form must the human voice be so finely honed and trained as to rise above a full orchestra without amplification and fill halls that seat thousands of people. People come to experience this great feat and to be taken some place else by the larger than life drama and theater that live opera offers.
What do you like to do in your spare time (assuming there is some)?
I have less and less spare time, which means I’m on the right track. When I do have some, I live for walking the Wissahickon Valley Park Trail. I’m an avid New Yorker reader and a bit of a politics junkie. I love to eat, so you’re likely to catch me various restaurants in center city or along Germantown Avenue.
Is there anyone you would like to thank publicly for contributing to your success?
Absolutely. My current voice teacher, John Tenaglia, a baritone from South Philadelphia. He is responsible for so much of my recent success. He actually shies away from recognition, but it would be nice to mention him anyway.
Justin will be performing with a 41-piece orchestra Saturday, April 25, 7:30 p.m., in Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” at Trinity Lutheran Church, 1000 W. Main St. in Lansdale. More information at 215-368-1710 or justinhopkinsopera.com.